- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s first home was the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington. Then, it spent 12 years on Church Street. For the past few seasons, Woolly has shuttled between the Kennedy Center and Theater J.

In its nearly 25-year history, the company may have lost its venue a few times, but never its edge. Amid the flux, one constant has remained: Woolly’s devotion to risky, often alarming, theater and to producing playwrights who are anything but household names.

Even moving to a spanking new custom-built theater on 7th and D, NW next spring isn’t going to drive Woolly to commercial expedients like producing a Tom Stoppard festival. Unless, that is, Mr. Stoppard starts writing plays featuring explicit sex, cannibalism, or Elvis impersonators in wheelchairs.

“Love, death and sex — that’s Woolly in a nutshell,” says Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, who started the theater with Roger Brady and Linda Reinisch in 1980. “We have a suicidal penchant for risk.”

That risk has paid off in box office success, numerous Helen Hayes awards, and new plays at Woolly moving on to productions at more than 100 theaters in 24 states and six countries. Woolly has sparked the careers of many playwrights, including the late Harry Kondoleon, Nicky Silver, and David Lindsay-Abairre, as well as introduced to the world the protean talents of actors Nancy Robinette, Sarah Marshall, Michael Russotto, Rhea Seahorn, Holly Twyford, Eric Sutton, Michael Willis and Rick Foucheux.

“Pretty much from the beginning, Woolly became known for doing second productions of plays that, for various reasons, didn’t do that well in New York,” says Miss Reinisch. “And Howard became the best script doctor of all time. Of course, we were also known as the unknown people doing unknown plays and as the theater with a weird name.”

Mr. Shalwitz and Mr. Brady were actors in New York when they decided to start their own theater. The expense and difficulties of starting anything new in the Big Apple (“New York, in many ways, is the most parochial theater town,” says Mr. Shalwitz) led them to explore other cities, and Washington looked the most attractive.

“There were a handful of small theaters back then and Arena, and that was pretty much it,” says Miss Reinisch, who left Woolly in 1988 to work with the Liz Lerman Dance Company. “I met Howard and Roger through a mutual friend soon after they moved here. I was an administrative type, and I told them ways we could get a theater to happen. We opened our first bank account with $1,000 of my own money.”

Mr. Shalwitz remembers literally knocking on doors to find space. “We did that for weeks at a time, looking like homeless people, and finally the Church of the Epiphany on 13th and G agreed to let us use their parish hall.”

From 1980 to 1986, Woolly Mammoth created cutting edge theater at this downtown church — which had its down side. “We had to break down the sets and the audience risers every Saturday night so they could use the hall for receptions on Sunday and then haul everything back out for the shows on Sunday nights,” says Mr. Shalwitz. “It taught us a lot about economizing and efficiency and schlepping.”

They also had to work with the church calendar, which was particularly challenging during Lenten season. “But with all the restrictions, the church was behind us and really had to run some interference,” he remembers. “We were doing ‘Lenny and Bruce’ by Wallace Shawn, and it is brutal and filthy. A group of parishioners were incensed, but the church was supportive 100 percent.”

To a point.

“One show we decided not to do there was ‘The Choir’ — an Australian play about boys in a boy choir who were castrated to keep their voices,” says Mr. Shalwitz. “We moved it to the YMCA.”

After six seasons of producing four plays a year, Woolly decided it was time to break away from the church. When Studio Theater moved to its current space at 14th and P, its venue on Church Street became available.

“We saw it as a temporary move that lasted 13 years,” says Mr. Shalwitz of the Church Street location. “Everybody loved that theater, and we did great things there, but artistically, I was ready to scream. There are virtually no wings, so there were the same design limitations every time.”

During the Church Street years, Woolly began to cement its reputation for off-kilter, strange theater. “I should have retired after doing ‘Pitchfork Disney’ in 1994,” actor Michael Russotto says. “I had to come on stage and vomit, even before I said a line. The first three rows recoiled in horror. I got to have sex and eat cockroaches — all on stage.”

Wooly also became known for an acting company that featured Nancy Robinette, Jennifer Mendenhall and Mr. Russotto. “We’ve kept together this loose sense of an acting company for 20 years, but the company doesn’t dominate the work,” says Mr. Shalwitz. “The goal at Woolly is always to find a good role for a company member every year. The ideal situation is when you have two or three veteran actors and a couple of newcomers.”

After losing the Church Street lease in 2000, Woolly began what Mr. Shalwitz calls “the nomadic years.” He admits that if it weren’t for the Kennedy Center’s AFI Theater and Theater J, the theater would not have survived. “We were able to sustain a five-play season and expose Woolly to whole new audiences,” he says. “So it all worked out very well.”

The nomadic years also were marked by Woolly’s creating and producing new plays, such as Neena Berber’s “Jump/Cut” and Craig Wright’s “Recent Tragic Events.” “We’re hoping to move toward a commissioned new play every season,” says Mr. Shalwitz. “Our vision statement for the new theater is to become the epicenter for challenging theater in America. We want to be like London’s Royal Court, only in the United States. That is not to say our work is esoteric. Not at all — there is a high entertainment factor.”

Among the highlights of “vintage Woolly work” for Mr. Shalwitz was “Christmas on Mars” in the 1986-87 season. “I was on the stage with Nancy Robinette and T.J. Edwards, and the idea of a company aesthetic started to coalesce. It is not only one of the great plays of the 1980s, but set a tone for a consistent theme at Woolly: neurotic family comedy.”

Mr. Shalwitz is also fond of “The Day Room,” “Quills,” and “Cooking with Elvis.” “With these plays and works like ‘The Psychic Life of Savages,’ which was about the secret lives of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, we took the biggest gambles artistically — and they paid off.”

There were some flops, too. “‘Andromeda Shack’ was a mess, but an exciting mess,” he sighs. “We committed to that when there was only 30 pages of dialogue. The same thing with ‘The Radiant Abyss’ — an unformed work with great acting. We don’t want too many of those experiences, but I do want to risk failure in order to find success.”

Woolly consistently takes chances in subject matter, language, and style that other theaters might shy away from. “It’s a hard sell — for funders and for the audience — but when we move into our new space next spring we want to take even greater risks,” Mr. Shalwitz says. “We don’t want to move to the center, but stay further on the edge.”

• “Lenny and Lou” (world premiere) by Ian Cohen, directed by Tom Prewitt. At Theater J, DC Jewish Community Center,Monday to Sept. 26. “Big heart, big love, neurotic characters — vintage Woolly,” says Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz.

• “Grace” (world premiere) by Craig Wright, directed by Michael John Garces. At the Warehouse Theater, Oct. 25 to Dec. 19. “Craig saw Jennifer Mendenhall in a Woolly play and asked us if he could write a role for her,” says Mr. Shalwitz. “It is a darker play about God and causality, and the main characters are born-again Christians.”

• “Our Lady of 121st Street” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by John Vreeke. At the AFI Theater, Kennedy Center, Dec. 8 to Jan. 2. “I read it and immediately said ‘We’ve gotta to do this,’ ” says Mr. Shalwitz. “It is a stretch for us because it is so big.”• “Big Death and Little Death” (world premiere) by Mickey Birnbaum, directed by Howard Shalwitz. At the new Woolly theater on 7th and D, March 2005. “I’ve been in love with this play for a few years,” Mr. Shalwitz says. “It takes place in the aftermath of the Gulf war and is funny and devastating.”

• “The Clean House” by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Rebecca Taichman. At Woolly’s theater on 7th and G, May 2005. “This is totally original and the most ‘out there’ play of the season,” says Mr. Shalwitz. “It is very visual and fantastical.”

For more information about Woolly Mammoth, call 202/393-3939, or www.woollymammoth.net.

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